How I Got a Grip on My Workweek

BusinessWeek Executive Editor Ellen Joan Pollock gets the David Allen Co. treatment for time management

The goal: 10 extra hours in my week.

The plan of attack: none.

That's pretty much where I was when Marian Bateman, a productivity coach with the David Allen Co., walked into my office. As executive editor at BusinessWeek, I'm responsible for getting the print edition into your hands each week, and I spend a lot of hours doing it. Just how many I'd rather not see in print.

I knew I had a time management problem. Recently I'd noticed my 11-year-old was wearing capri-length pants on even the coldest of days. I didn't know whether that was the result of a laundry mishap, a growth spurt, or neglectful parenting. It had been months since I'd been inside a gym.

Marian didn't flinch at my 10-hour goal. She eyed my messy desk as though she'd seen it all before. Happily, she didn't notice the take-a-number machine my team had installed outside my office as a joke (more or less). She set to work sorting through the piles on my desk and diving into my file cabinets. She took everything and tossed it into three cardboard file boxes. Marian called this "collecting." Then she instructed me to make a list of all the pesky tasks and projects on my mind. With apologies to the environment, we put each item on a separate sheet of paper and threw them into my now-empty in-box. Marian called this a "mind sweep."

By now BusinessWeek staffers had begun to snicker at the chaos as they passed my door. Marian brushed it off. "I don't want to overemphasize the physical," she explained. She recalled working with an executive who was guiding a global initiative for her company. Her office was pristine. But the mind sweep took two and a half hours as Marian helped her empty her head onto paper.

That, pretty much, is the heart of the David Allen program. Putting everything on paper sounds basic, Marian noted. But the goal is to "get everything out of your head, clarify your agreements to yourself, and put it in a trusted system." That allows a "conscious choice about how to spend your time and resources" and keeps projects from becoming what Marian calls "amorphous blobs of undoability."

Allen's acolytes, mostly busy executives, think in terms of "altitude maps." You start on "the runway" and eventually reach the lofty point where, according to Allen's book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, you have the "big picture view." But before you reach 50,000 feet in the GTD system you have to "collect" and "process." If you can accomplish a task in two minutes, you do it. Otherwise you delegate or defer it. If an item can't be turned into a "next action," you stick the paperwork into a "reference" or "someday/maybe" folder.

Sound a bit complicated? Not as long as you have your trusty "GTD system guides" nearby—or if you shelled out $6,000 for two days of individual coaching, which David Allen Co. often recommends. (Additional time is required to train administrative assistants.) Sometimes whole teams attend seminars—$8,000 a pop plus extras. (The firm's prices can vary). But there are less expensive options, such as public seminars and interactive learning. The Ojai (Calif.) firm has worked with executives at General Mills (GIS), Oracle (ORCL), and Fidelity, as well as large accounting firms.

Several hours into my session with Marian, I found myself ready to worship at the David Allen altar. Marian, who had tossed my beloved spiral notebook full of to-do lists into a file box, had deftly reconfigured the task function in Outlook according to the David Allen way. There were sections for projects and next actions. The latter were divided into multiple categories, such as agenda items and phone calls. When it comes to e-mails, the David Allen folks are harsh taskmasters. They believe in-boxes should be "processed to zero." I had well over 6,000 e-mails in my in-box. Marian had me archive ancient ones and move others to my task list as attachments.

Then we turned to the file boxes. Some scraps of paper became next actions. Others went into reference folders in a file cabinet. For that, Marian whipped out a Brother P-Touch 15 labeler. In a flash, it churned out labels and Marian showed me a special tool for peeling off the backs. "I've had executives around the world wax prosaic about their labelers," she said. I had to have one.

I began to see that toys and tricks are important features of the David Allen way. One subject per folder is a "best practice," and hanging folders are frowned upon. Those lines at the bottom of your average manila folder? If you crease them you can get more in. Who knew?

By the time we were done, I had agenda folders for each of my direct reports perched on one side of my computer. On the other side were plastic file folders that come pre-labeled by David Allen Co. One was titled "Action Support," another "To Home." I could stuff them into a GTD-branded orange zippered envelope—made from recycled materials—and lug them home.

But as I said good night to Marian I was worried. Without her, would I know what went into an "action support" folder? How was it that writing this article wasn't on my "next action" list? At home would I be able to reconfigure Outlook on my laptop? I glanced warily at the 43-page GTD and Outlook 2003 manual.

It turned out I could. On Saturday, I opened my in-box, "processed to zero," and turned to my "next actions." I was determined to get to the gym by 11 a.m., the time Marian and I had booked on my calendar, known in GTD parlance as my "hard landscape." But when I got to one action item—buy a Brother P-Touch 15 labeler—I was stumped. After 30 minutes online, I realized the model had been discontinued. What would David Allen do?

When my husband returned from walking the dog, he pointed out that I was sitting exactly where he'd left me two hours before and mocked my red "action support folder."

But finally I made it to the gym. And tucked into that "action support" folder were 10% off coupons for the Gap (GPS), where I just may find pants that fit my daughter. I've already put it on my "hard landscape" for next weekend.

With Ellen Gibson

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.